This post is my contribution to a project called Bloggin’ the 28, which I’ve been posting links to throughout the summer. Sponsored by the Spectrum Blog, the project engages bloggers in writing about and reflecting upon the ethical implications of the 28 fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist church. The last entry was about the Sanctuary, by David Hamstra and Marty Thurber at Just Pastors. Go read it! Then come back here and read my post, below, which is a reflection upon Fundamental Belief #4: God the Son. To start off, here’s the church’s official statement:
“God the eternal Son became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Through Him all things were created, the character of God is revealed, the salvation of humanity is accomplished, and the world is judged. Forever truly God, He became also truly man, Jesus the Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He lived and experienced temptation as a human being, but perfectly exemplified the righteousness and love of God. By His miracles He manifested God’s power and was attested as God’s promised Messiah. He suffered and died voluntarily on the cross for our sins and in our place, was raised from the dead, and ascended to minister in the heavenly sanctuary in our behalf. He will come again in glory for the final deliverance of His people and the restoration of all things. (John 1:1-3, 14; Col. 1:15-19; John 10:30; 14:9; Rom. 6:23; 2 Cor. 5:17-19; John 5:22; Luke 1:35; Phil. 2:5-11; Heb. 2:9-18; 1 Cor. 15:3, 4; Heb. 8:1, 2; John 14:1-3.)”
What does it mean to say that Jesus was and is “Forever truly God,” but also that “He became … truly man”?
On this fourth fundamental belief Seventh-day Adventists clearly align ourselves with the rest of Christianity, over against those who do not define themselves as Christians. Here is the great divide between those who worship Jesus as God and those – Muslims, some Buddhists and Hindus and pagans, even many atheists and agnostics – who consider Jesus to be a good and exemplary man, an inspired spiritual teacher. To say that this first-century Jewish peasant preacher was more than a great teacher – that He was and is “forever truly God” — is to cross a clearly-defined line in the sand.
Yet even that line is not as clearly defined as it once was, for today many people self-identify as “Christian” yet don’t believe Jesus was “truly God.” Many people believe that the Biblical passages in which He calls Himself “Son of God” were placed into His mouth later by gospel writers; that Jesus never imagined Himself in such lofty terms; that He was, perhaps, a “son of God” only in the sense that all human beings are sons and daughters of God.
That particular doctrinal heresy – denying the divinity of Christ – is one few Seventh-day Adventists are likely to fall into. We are conservative, traditional, Bible-believing Protestants; we remain firmly in the mainstream of Christianity in affirming that God the Son existed in heaven with the Father from eternity, became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, was raised from the dead and continues to exist as part of the Godhead. The divinity of Jesus is not one of the things we Adventists argue about, much.
As I look back on the religious training I received growing up in Seventh-day Adventist home, church and school, it seems to me that we may have veered – unintentionally, no doubt – a little too far in the opposite direction. Or perhaps the fault lay not in my teachers, but in the mind that received their teaching. For whatever reason, I grew up with the vague impression that while Jesus’ divinity was absolutely unshakable and beyond question, His humanity was more of a theoretical construct.
The Jesus I met in Sabbath School and in Bible classes was the Great Physician, the Friend of Sinners, the Lamb of God. But He was also a little like Superman banished from Krypton, or like Zeus on one of his amorous visits to a mortal woman. This Jesus was omniscient, omnipotent, and supremely confident in His divinity. Humanity was a costume He wore, but at any moment He could snap His fingers and call ten thousand angels to subdue His enemies – though He chose not to. His body was human, and capable of weariness and pain (though perhaps not of sickness – I remember junior Sabbath School arguments about whether Jesus ever had a cold). But His mind was in constant, effortless contact with Heaven, never subject to doubt or uncertainty or fear – or any of the weaknesses that make us truly human.
I am fairly sure that my Sabbath School and church school teachers did not intend to transmit the heresy of Docetism; they were simply so anxious to underline the divinity of Christ in a world that mocked it, that they unintentionally backpedaled and downplayed His humanity.
It wasn’t till I began reading the works of more liberal Christian writers on the historical Jesus – authors like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg – that I began to seriously examine my perception of the humanity of Jesus. While I couldn’t believe, as they did, that Jesus was merely human, I realized when I explored my inner picture of Jesus that the Jesus I’d been worshipping and following all these years wasn’t even truly human. He was God dressed up as a human, like Superman wearing those ridiculous Clark Kent glasses that apparently made it impossible for anyone to recognize his true identity.
But it wasn’t only the works of liberal Christians that forced me to confront the humanity of Jesus. It was Scripture itself — passages like the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4; Luke 4). When Satan tempted Jesus, he threw down the challenge: “If you are the Son of God….” If Jesus was incapable of self-doubt, if He knew He was divine the same way I know I am a woman, then how was this a temptation? He wouldn’t have been tempted, even for a moment, to prove Himself if there had been no possibility of doubt.
Nor would the temptation have been meaningful without the possibility of sin. If you can’t possibly give in, if you soar so far above normal human concerns that sin has no attraction for you, then you can’t really be tempted. Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ struggle with Satan – not just at the end of forty days in the wilderness, but throughout His earthly life – meant nothing if He was not truly human, for to be truly human is to be capable of failure.
I have it on good authority that the best theological minds of the ages have been unable to explain how Jesus could be fully God and fully human. I am no theologian at all, so I do not attempt an explanation. I suspect for the most part we have gotten around the unexplainable by emphasizing one aspect of Jesus’ nature at the expense of the other – imagining Jesus as a human being who was just a little godlike, as many liberal Christians do today, or imagining Jesus as God only pretending to be human, as I did for so many years.
Today, I try hard to keep that uneasy tension, to remember that Jesus really was truly human. But why? Questions about the Incarnation, about the divine/human nature of Jesus, have to be at the extreme angels-dancing-on-pinheads end of impractical theological arguments. Who really cares? What impact does it make on my everyday life if Jesus was, not merely human, but truly human – capable of pain and fear and doubt and depression? What impact does it have on my relationships with other human beings?
In some ways, the idea of a truly human Jesus scares me. But a truly human Jesus also does three other, more practical things for me:
1. A truly human Jesus knows me.
Surely one of the greatest Bible texts affirming Jesus’ humanity is Hebrews 4:15 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.”
I’ve heard people say that Jesus can’t possibly have been tempted in every way like they are – because He wasn’t a woman, or elderly, or disabled, or gay, or married, or a parent, or because He didn’t have to live in the twenty-first century with all the temptations that continually bombard postmodern people.
The point, surely, is not that Jesus experienced every single temptation, every single trial a human could ever be exposed to, but that His temptations were as real and difficult for Him, His trials and suffering as painful and discouraging, as ours could ever be. He is, in the beautiful words of the King James Version, “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” because He has felt them too. He was not simply a god putting on human costume, going through the motions, pretending to suffer. He was as real a human being as you or me, and when I cry out to Him in pain and fear and despair, He knows what I’m talking about.
2. A truly human Jesus challenges me.
But the last phrase of Hebrews 4:15 is the killer – yet was without sin. How could that be? How could He know real temptation, just as I do, yet not fall as I do?
Again, I think this takes me into theological waters deeper than I am capable of swimming in. I believe that if Jesus was truly human, that means He was truly tempted. He could have chosen to sin. He chose not to. And if He was truly human, he did this, not in His own superhuman strength, but in the strength of a human being who chooses to rely on the grace of God. The strength, it seems, that is available to any of us.
I say this not to raise the spectre of perfectionism, which is honestly not a topic that interests me much since it seems so remote from the reality I live in, but to affirm the words of the second century church father Irenaeus, who said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
Jesus came to die for our sins and rise again to defeat death, but what did Jesus live for? What did His thirty-plus years of human life mean? Could they have been meant to show us what a human being is capable of – what human beings can be once they are fully alive, restored to the image of God that is still within each of us? Jesus’ example offers at once both hope and a challenge, for a truly human Jesus shows us what human beings can be and can do when they allow God’s Spirit and God’s grace into their lives.
3. A truly human Jesus confronts me.
Back to the convoluted and mysterious book of Hebrews for a moment – to Hebrews 2:11, where the author says, speaking of Jesus and of human beings: “So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.”
Where in the gospels does Jesus refer to human beings as His brothers? In one of His most powerful sermons, in which He uses the imagery of sheep and goats – Matthew 25:31-46. After affirming the selfless acts of the saved – visiting the sick and prisoners, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked – Jesus reminds them: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
If any passage in the gospels should convict us, this should be the one. Jesus was not merely a divine being walking around in human clothes for a few years. He was a real human being – so much so that He identifies Himself, for all time, with suffering and hurting humanity. In the face of every suffering human being, Jesus confronts us. He tells us plainly that when we serve those in need, we serve Him. When we ignore those in need, when we make ourselves comfortable at their expense, when we make excuses to justify our coldness and our lack of involvement and even our hate – then we turn that coldness, that ignorance, that hatred on Jesus Himself, the one we claim to worship.
This is a hard saying. As I look at the mass of suffering humanity, I can see many faces in which I find it easy to find the reflection of Jesus. For example, I find it easy to love and serve at-risk youth and young adults, even if they are drug addicts or criminals or highly unpromising prospects. That comes easy to me, and I earn no brownie points for it. There are other faces – I won’t say whose – in which it is hard for me to see the face of Jesus. People I find easy to ignore, to turn away from, to reject. People who are hard for me to love. And in these people, Jesus confronts me.
A truly human Jesus knows me. He knows my weakness because He has been there. He challenges me to become like Him – a human being fully alive, fully engaged in loving others. And He confronts me in the faces of those others – human beings like Him, His brothers and sisters, who call out for my love, my compassion, my attention.
Because Jesus is truly human, He does all this to me. And if Jesus were merely human, I would have to stop there and say I can go no farther along the path of following Him; I don’t have what it takes. But because He is truly God as well, He has walked the path before me and ensured my success despite my failures. Truly God and truly human, He knows me, He confronts me, and He challenges me to follow Him.